With the conclusion of the team’s Offseason Training Activities, the Buffalo Bills have a month to get ready for Training Camp. The small tease of excitement fans had with reports and clips of the team back on the field ended quickly, so I decided to make some way too early predictions as to how things could shake out in training camp, answering questions about who’s on the bubble, which players will underachieve and overachieve, etc.
Last week I made predictions for the 2016 Buffalo Bills offense, which you can read here
In this edition, I’ll pick apart the defense. Feel free to provide your thoughts to these topics in the comments!
Who will be the biggest Buffalo Bills offseason acquisition on defense in 2016?
The Buffalo Bills added several veteran free agents on the defensive side of the ball, but most of them were for depth or special teams purposes. However, in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the team selected inside linebacker Reggie Ragland to pair with fellow ‘backer Preston Brown. Rex Ryan’s defenses have relied on quality play from star inside linebackers over the years, utilizing the pairings of Ray Lewis and Bart Scott, Bart Scott and David Harris and David Harris with DeMario Davis before having Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown last season.
Reggie Ragland is a big, physical force that’s expected to play the “WILL” next to Brown, who will be the “MIKE.” The WILL linebacker in Rex Ryan’s scheme typically has plays funneled to him due to the two-gapping principles of the defensive line, along with the MIKE’s responsibilities to take on lead blockers.
Ragland is a rookie, but comes from Alabama, who’s defense runs similar system to the one he’ll be playing in with Buffalo. He’s a dominant run defender with underrated athleticism that allows him to stay on the field in the passing game. Nigel Bradham is a talented player, but was better suited playing outside in a 4-3 defense, so the addition of Reggie Ragland should be one that instantly upgrades the Bills’ defense.
Who will rise above the level expected of them in 2016?
This is an interesting question, as many Buffalo Bills defenders fell short of the expectations set for them prior to the 2015 season, with the exception of a handful of players. This year, I believe that Preston Brown will be the one that exceeds expectations. Last season, Brown struggled to grasp Rex Ryan’s complex scheme and even had his headset duties as the on-field play caller stripped from him and given to the veteran SAM linebacker, Manny Lawson.
Now with a year to absorb the system and some better scheme fits surrounding him, Preston Brown should thrive. Ryan pressed Brown to become more vocal and take on a bigger leadership role as he enters his third year since being selected in the third-round of the 2014 NFL Draft out of Louisville and he seems to have accepted that challenge, as Ty Dunne of The Buffalo News explained.
Asked point blank if Ryan wants him to be The Man next season, Brown didn’t hesitate with a “Definitely — I know they have confidence in me.” Still, Ryan’s message to Brown this offseason is loud and clear: Be loud and clear. In this defense with an encyclopedia of checks on checks on checks, one motion changes everything. I was stepping back a little bit and letting other guys say stuff,” he said. “But now it’s time for the defense to play the way it’s supposed to play. I need to take charge and lead the way this year.”
Which defensive player will fall below fans’ expectations in 2016?
Last year, Corey Graham transitioned from cornerback to safety and took on a major role on the Buffalo Bills defense when Aaron Williams went down with a season-ending injury. Graham racked up 122 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack, one interception and four pass breakups, but allowed 35 receptions (8th-most among safeties) for 547 yards (3rd-most) and six touchdowns (2nd-most).
He was a quality run defender that played a large amount of snaps in the box, but now at 30 years old, the 10-year veteran doesn’t have the speed, range or change-of-direction ability to be reliable in coverage from a deep alignment, which is crucial in today’s passing league. Graham will likely be the starter opposite Aaron Williams, but don’t be surprised if recently signed Robert Blanton or even Duke Williams cuts into his snaps.
Which Bills’ player is under the most pressure to stand out?
Corbin Bryant went from a rotational defensive tackle to a full-time starter when Kyle Williams suffered a season-ending injury. The team retained him during the offseason as a restricted free agent, but he’ll be fighting with Jerel Worthy, Leger Douzable, T.J. Barnes and the team’s rookie third-round pick, Adolphus Washington for playing time.
Bryant is a solid player, but he’s not very disruptive in the passing game and is inconsistent when facing double teams or two-gapping. He’ll see his fair share of snaps, but he’ll need to stand out during training camp and preseason in order to have a similar impact to what he did in 2015.
Which player is in jeopardy of losing their roster spot?
When Aaron Williams went down with an injury, the Bills used Baccari Rambo to replace him, even though he was brought in as a waiver pickup towards the end of the 2014 season, over their fourth-round draft pick from the 2013 NFL Draft in Duke Williams.
From a physical standpoint, Duke Williams is everything you’d imagine a free safety in Rex Ryan’s defense to be. He’s fast, athletic and is a punishing hitter. However, in the limited time he saw the field last year, Williams was a liability, surrendering touchdowns due to blown assignments and whiffing on tackles in the run game. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Duke Williams needs to grasp the mental aspect of the game if he wants to not only grow as a player, but secure a spot on the final 53-man roster.
Who will be the star on the Buffalo Bills’ defense this year?
With the departure of Mario Williams, coupled with the uncertainty of when first-round edge defender Shaq Lawson will be able to see the field, the Bills need to get after the quarterback in 2016. Last season, Jerry Hughes recorded just 5 sacks after notching 20 in the previous two seasons.
Hughes managed to generate 59 quarterback pressures, which was the eighth-most at his position, but he couldn’t convert those to sacks, which was a big reason why the Bills’ defense struggled and finished with only 21 total sacks.
The Bills gave Jerry Hughes a sizeable contract to be a core player on defense and he’ll need to return to the level of play he showcased in 2013 and 2014 if the team will be successful.